Storyteller-in-Chief: Natural Prophets

The CEO and co-founder of Elemental Technologies reflects on the state’s natural assets.

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Those of us in the tech community like to think of ourselves as innovators.

And Oregon does have a strong track record of technical innovation. Tektronix invented the oscilloscope and many other test and measurement tools; Mentor Graphics was a pioneer in computer-aided circuit design; Sequent Computer Systems designed some of the first multiprocessor computer systems; and InFocus invented the LCD projector. 

Yet our innovations in the technology arena pale in comparison to those which Oregon has forged in the public policy arena, especially when it comes to ensuring a sustainable environment for its citizens.

Legislative ‘firsts’ that Oregonians benefit from every day include:

The Oregon Beach Bill, passed in 1967 to ensure public ownership of land along the entire coast. The only other state in the union that allows public free use of beaches without limitation is Hawaii.

The Oregon Bottle Bill, enacted in 1971. Formally known as the Beverage Container Act, it became the nation’s first bottle-deposit legislation.

Senate Bill 100, which was passed in 1973 to establish urban growth boundaries around the state’s metro areas. It was the first major land-use legislation in the country.

Much of Oregon’s vaunted livability can be directly linked back to these landmark policies, which have helped our state to recruit and retain the knowledge workers who have been strengthening our economy for the past 40 years.

Much of Oregon’s pioneering environmental legislation was driven by legendary Republican governor Thomas Lawson McCall.

Anyone who works in downtown Portland has likely spent a good deal of time enjoying our beautiful Willamette River at Tom McCall Waterfront Park, an area formerly a freeway named Harbor Drive prior to its removal in 1974.

This park exists in large part thanks to McCall’s support for improving the west bank of the river and making it accessible to the public.

Waterfront Park is just one of our state’s many testaments to Governor McCall’s legacy. But there is another that holds a special place in my heart: the Tom McCall Preserve above Mosier in the Columbia River Gorge.

When I was a child growing up here, every spring my mother would let my brothers and me play hooky for a day, and we would drive the historic highway out toward Rowena Plateau. Occasionally, she even persuaded our father to skip work and join us.

The spring wildflowers in the preserve are truly spectacular; the beautiful meadows carpeted with grass widows and shooting stars; golden balsamroot, purple lupine and red Indian paintbrush adorned the steep trails.

Initially, my brothers and I would worry about having to miss school, friends and sports.

But once we left the city behind and wound our way through the Gorge, nature’s awe-inspiring glory took over. I remember getting out of the car and reeling from the power of the wind on the plateau, almost strong enough to knock me over.

We would walk the trails and identify flowers, as well as listen for the western meadowlark — Oregon’s state bird — and the occasional red-winged blackbird. On especially lucky days we would spot tiny lizards or frogs. As our fear of the wind decreased, we would walk tentatively up to the edge of the plateau and gape at the abyss below, at the splendor of the Columbia River and the marvel of the Cascades in the distance.

My father died early last year. We thought for a long time about where to sprinkle his ashes. Then one day, my mother said: let’s head up to Rowena. My brother Eli and I found a day we could take off from work and — just as when we were kids — hopped into my mother’s wagon and headed for the Gorge.

After a brisk and refreshing hike up from Rowena Crest, we reached McCall Point with its stunning vistas of Mount Defiance, Mount Adams and finally Mount Hood.

The three of us shared portions of my father’s ashes, dispersing them alone to pay our final respects to him in this beautiful country he loved. I cannot imagine a better resting place.

It does not matter how many times I visit the McCall Preserve; it never fails to inspire me, and it never fails to inspire deep appreciation for innovative Oregonians like Gov. McCall who fought to protect places like Rowena.

He ensured that my children will get to experience and benefit from Oregon’s uniquely natural beauty in the same way that my parents, brothers and I have.

We are very fortunate to call this beautiful state home, thanks largely to leaders who fought to ensure its magnificence for future generations.

Sam Blackman is CEO of Elemental Technologies.